The Robots Are Coming! Let’s Make Them Work for the Workers

(Photo: Pin Add)Rather than causing unemployment and inequality, technological advancements could mean less work and higher living standards. (Photo: Pin Add)

In a capitalist economy with privately owned means of production, technological advancements often result in unemployment and inequality. In a cooperative political economic system, however, these advancements would mean less work and higher living standards.

“The robots are coming. Will they take your job?” asked CNBC.com. The slightly skeptical Atlantic went with, “The robots are coming, but are they really taking our jobs?,” while The Washington Post went with full-blown fear mongering: “The robots are coming for your job. Here’s how to respond.”

These dramatic headlines are reflective of our collective societal anxiety about the future of our jobs with the increase of robotics, automation and artificial intelligence. The ominous, doomsday-predicting articles point to something that many people already feel about these advances: This can only mean more oppression, exploitation, unemployment and inequality. According to a report by Oxford researchers, almost half of all jobs in the United States will be lost to technology within 20 years.

In September 2014, the first 3D printed car was made in just 44 hours, threatening the nearly 900,000 Americans working in automotive manufacturing. McDonald’s may be replacing its cashiers with tablets for ordering food, threatening the 4.4 million Americans who work in the food and beverage service industry. We could soon have self-driving vehicles on the roads, which means the nearly 250,000 taxi drivers and chauffeurs and 3.5 million truck drivers in the United States also have reason to be concerned.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is also improving to the point where many jobs that do not require creative thought and involve routine tasks only could be replaced with technology. 2014 ended with researchers from the University of Maryland creating an AI robot that can learn to cook gourmet meals by watching YouTube videos. Once again, millions of jobs – now even ones that require complex tasks and learning – are put at risk by developments that should, in an ideal world, benefit us all and have us excited for the future.

Erik Brynjolfsson, an MIT professor, and his collaborator Andrew McAfee argue that the trend of technology stealing jobs will rapidly accelerate. Since the end of World War II, productivity and employment have been closely linked. Plotted on a graph, the lines were inseparable. But since 2000, productivity has steadily rose, while employment is no longer tied to productivity, a move Brynjolfsson and McAfee call the “great decoupling.” They argue that now, technology is improving so quickly that there will be mass unemployment as the hiring of workers fails to keep up with increasing innovation and productivity. Profits will be funneled to the wealthy.

This painful paradox of progress has been recognized by the left for a long time. In his 1949 essay, “Why Socialism,” Albert Einstein wrote, “Technological progress frequently results in more unemployment rather than in an easing of the burden of work for all . . . The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital, the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically-organized political society.” Thus, our technological progress can even harm our democracy in a competitive and exploitative economic system.

The media are exploding with discussion about robots and unemployment, but few are addressing the underlying problem. This is not a problem with technology. Just as climate change is not a problem with carbon – as Naomi Klein argues – and police brutality is not a problem resulting from a lack of body cameras. These and many other problems stem from capitalism and private ownership of the means of production.

Seize the Means of Production

If we are not careful, technology will become the enemy of the people. Cyborgs with lasers could take over the world, or, much more likely, technology will take jobs from workers, leaving many people unemployed and creating a massive, nearly inescapable lower class. In a different political economic system, however, technological advances would not steal work from people; they would liberate people from work. A political economic system that places ownership of the means of production in the hands of the people would be capable of ensuring that the masses benefit from these advances in a way that we never have before. We must recognize the ludicrousness behind the mindset that this form of progress is inherently bad, yet to do so, we must also tackle the very real and reoccurring problem of new technology benefiting the upper classes only.

Many of the most recent advances in technology have been class biased, which should not be surprising in a classist system. This was clearly illustrated by Tali Kristal, professor at the University of Haifa, in her essay, “The Capitalist Machine: Computerization, Workers’ Power, and the Decline in Labor’s Share Within US Industries.” Especially since 1970, she points out, computerization and other technologies have benefited employers at the expense of employees. Workers during this time lost much of their positional power and labor’s share of the national income fell 6 percent while profits for capitalists have only risen since then.

Technology working against the interests of the people is an increasing problem, but it is by no means a new one. In 1794, when Eli Whitney was searching for a more efficient way to process cotton, he did so with the intention of making the job easier on humans. “This machine may be turned by water or with a horse, with the greatest ease, and one may and a horse will do more than fifty men with the old machine. It makes the labor fifty times less, without throwing any class of People out of business,” Whitney wrote in a 1793 letter to his father. Yet, his final product, the cotton gin, is often pointed to as one of the leading causes for the explosion of the slave trade in the South. The cotton gin was sold to and then owned by slave owners, not the slaves who were actually doing the work. An invention that could have benefited humanity immensely by allowing cheaper, lighter and more comfortable clothing to be made in a less expensive and labor intensive way was, in fact, tied to one of the worst crimes in human history, all because of private ownership of the means of production.

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that developed countries would have a 15-hour workweek, while maintaining living standards that would be four to eight times higher. While he was right about rising living standards, at least in the United States, his prediction of a shorter workweek failed to come to fruition. The competitive nature of capitalism would have us work longer hours to beat the labor force of other countries. When capitalists focus solely on making money, technological advances work more toward increasing profits for the wealthy than they do to increase quality of life or cut down the amount of labor needed. Keynes, the father of Band-Aid solution capitalism, also did not take consumer culture into account. Capitalist society heavily influences our culture, so we often choose to have more things and less time. We are willing to work more than we need to live comfortably, so that we can afford all the things that advertisements tell us we need to be happy.

The left used to call for a four-hour workday, which they believed could be achieved through a cooperative economy, collectively owned enterprises and technological advancements for the purpose of reducing the amount of labor needed to be done instead of simply lining the pockets of the wealthy capitalists.

If mind-numbing, underpaid work can be done more efficiently by a machine, it should make sense to leave it to technology and free humans from that labor. In a capitalist economy, however, we find ourselves battling technology in competition for terrible jobs, just so we can make enough money to live.

The message of McAfee and Brynjolfsson is an important one; we cannot take the coming levels of unemployment lightly. However, they fall short when they blame technology and not the system, for there is nothing inherent in technological advances that harms the welfare of the people. If we were to continue on the path we are on, they would be correct about their prediction for the future, but it seems more likely that the average American would revolt before accepting 75 percent unemployment. Seizing the means of production – done through armed revolution and confederated labor unions during the Spanish Civil War by anarcho-syndicalists and, in a radically different way, by occupying factories and winning legal battles in Argentina more recently – is the only way to ensure that machines do not put us out of work. A leftist political economy could be one in which technological advancements benefit the people and liberate them from work, not steal it from them.